Privacy, tabs and web content overhaul in Firefox 3.1 Beta 2

Mozilla has released Firefox 3.1 Beta 2, the second development release of the first major update to Firefox 3, released about six months ago.

Firefox 3.1 will bring several new features (most of them pulled back from Firefox 3), along with significant performance, usability, and web standards support improvements.

Let’s see what’s in.

Tabbed Browsing

Tab browsing is getting much attention in this release. While some dramatic changes like the new tab preview or the Ctrl+ Tab switching behavior introduced in Beta 1 have been dropped, there are still some nice enhancements, most of them triggered by the decision to finally make tabbed browsing the default mode.

The tab bar is now always visible and a new tab button has been added to it making tabbed browsing really discoverable for the first time.

Another update to tabbed browsing is the implementation of true tab drag and drop between windows (through tab reparenting instead of just a page reload as in Firefox 3), as well as tab tearing or taking a tab to its own window by simply dragging the tab out of Firefox’s tab bar.

You can also press the Ctrl key while pressing the Reload button to reload the current page in a new tab. While this is coherent with overall Firefox behavior, if you tend to use this mouse and keyboard combination for hard page reloads, prepare to be annoyed a few times.

Performance

Performance-wise, TraceMonkey, the JavaScript optimization technique introduced in Beta 1 has gotten stable enough to be enabled by default in Beta 2, unleashing serious performance improvements.

On my tests it runs the SunSpider benchmark in half the time it takes Firefox 3.0.4. In Dromaeo, Mozilla’s own JavaScript benchmarking, it shaves one third of the total run time.

A change in the way web feeds are updated, now prevents some “mysterious” hang ups that were somewhat common when you had a large number of feeds or lengthy feeds.

A number of query optimizations have improved overall performance of Places, particularly in Linux where some SQLite operations resulted on excessive file system activity due to the way Linux works.

A standard way to declare, create and run web page background processes (like JavaScript code) called web workers, will enable web developers to create more responsive rich internet applications where complex scripts don’t put the whole interface on hold.

Privacy

One of the main concerns with the introduction of the awesome bar in Firefox 3 was that it could accidentally reveal a web site you have visited that you don’t want others to know about. Firefox 3.1 includes options to exclude tags, bookmarks or history items from the awesome bar results that were originally planned for Firefox 3. You can either filter them in using the default operator while typing in the location bar or make it permanent setting a few preferences in about:config.

The most important change, however, is the introduction of Private Browsing mode. In the Tools menu, you select Private Browsing and all pages visited, searches, completed forms, cookies, and download history will be removed when you exit Private Browsing or you exit Firefox (normally or because of a crash).

The only hint right now is the text (Private Browsing) added to the title bar. A better way that balances the need to let the user know he is in private mode, and the need to not tell pass byers you’re doing “private stuff” will be added in the next Firefox version.

Interfaces are provided for extension and theme developers to detect the mode and act accordingly. In fact, Toggle Private Browsing is an extension that already adds a buton to the toolbar to turn private browsing on and off.

If you forgot to enable private browsing, the previous Clear Private Data dialog (via the Tools menu) is now Clear Recent Data which let’s you discard private data for the last 1, 2, 4 or 24 hours.

User Experience

The first change you will notice is during the setup. As announced before, Mozilla has removed the EULA from the setup process. Instead, an information bar will appear on the first launch with a link to about:rights, a new internal page that explains Firefox license and trademarks terms. Firefox now requires only three clicks for typical installation.

A label has been added to the location bar with “Search Bookmarks and History” aimed for new users. The hint is displayed only for new tabs, and when you move the focus to somewhere else, so you won’t see it that often.

Now that the tab bar is always visible by default, the throbber (activity indicator) has become redundant as each tab has its own, so it has now out of the toolbars by default.

Updates are more informative and show how long it will take. Add-on updates (specially large ones) would also benefit of this enhancement.

Support for recent MacBooks’ multitouch trackpads is also available, with gestures for navigating back and forward (three finger left or right swipe), move to the top or the bottom of the page (swipe up and down), zoom (pinch in or out), and swithc tabs (twist clockwise or counter clockwise). With Windows 7 expected to include support for multitouch interfaces sometime in 2010,  good to know Firefox will be ready and awaiting.

Gestures can be customized via about:config.

Links to external resources such as JavaScript files or CSS files are now clickable when viewing a page source code.

A new session restore dialog now lets you select what windows and tabs you want to restore after a crash helping isolate the problematic tab or plugin and prevent.

The Google search icon has been updated to the new blue “g” Google introduced earlier this year.

Library management gets a tad easier with the ability to edit several bookmarks at a time.

Tagging can be faster now with tag autocomplete for bookmarks and history.

Web Content

Several content related improvements have been available since the alphas and previous beta.

  • CSS media queries improve developers customization options to deliver content appropriate for the user’s screen size, resolution and color capabilities.
  • Query selectors let web programmers more effectively access relative page elements for better applications performance.
  • Support for HTML 5 drag and drop specification will also ease this common task.
  • Experimental support for CSS transformations and SVG effects for HTML elements dramatically expand the possibilities for web designers with options to rotate, scale, blur, or solarize web elements a matter of a couple of lines.
  • Support for embedded fonts (@font-face) will allow users to get the very same font and overall result the web designer intended.
  • Cross-site XMLHttpRequests support is back in Firefox 3.1 now that the specification is complete. it will allow AJAX web applications to pull content from other web domains if the server allows it.
  • Support for color profiles introduced in Firefox 3 is now enabled by default.

Beta 2 gains 4 more points in the Acid3 test since Beta 1 to 93/100, and a handful of patches still awaits for review that could push the mark to 97 as demonstrated in experimental Windows and Linux builds prepared by Ehsan Akhgari.

Introduced in Beta 1, Geolocation will enable Firefox to pass the current user location (with varying levels of precision) to web sites that ask for it to provide customized content. Geode, a Firefox 3 extension released some time ago, aims to test this feature in advance of Firefox 3.1 release to spot and address possible bugs, and most importantly, privacy concerns.

Beta 2 also expands previously introduced support for <audio> and <video> tags and native support for open and free Ogg Theora and Vorbis video and audio formats with support for .wav streams.

Video objects got a context menu, and videos can be viewed on their own, so Firefox can register itself as a Vorbis and Theora player.

More to come

With a third beta in the horizon there’s still room for some planned features to get in including Windows theme refresh and polishing, tab animations, and better audio/video playback controls are all expected to land soon, along with the usual dose of performance and stability improvements.

A reviewed location bar that would exclude bookmarks tagged as “private”, and will search open tabs has been pulled back from this release.

As usual at this stage in a new release development, most add-ons are not compatible with 3.1 yet, but extension interfaces are frozen with very specific exceptions now, and developers are being encouraged to start updating.

Internally, Mozilla has created a separate branch to continue Firefox 3.1 development, while code for future versions (tentatively, Firefox 3.2) gets checked in to the trunk.

Get Firefox 3.1 Beta 2. Firefox 3.1 Beta 2 release notes.

22 thoughts on “Privacy, tabs and web content overhaul in Firefox 3.1 Beta 2”

  1. I love the new features and performance improvements that Firefox 3.1 brings but I have 2 problems:
    – Firefox 3.1 stole the new tab button and put in a really small button in between two very small buttons. Even after two months I still don’t use the stupid small new tab button and first try to click the new tab button that I always had left of the awesomebar.
    – “true tab drag” is far too sensitive. I accidentally drag a tab multiple times a day and each time it is a shock. By merely selecting a tab with the mouse I somehow move the mouse 1 pixel and the tab gets ripped from the browser and put in a new window. I hope they can make it a lot less sensitive because this is my number one complaint about Firefox 3.1

  2. great, except that on Linux, “new tab” button doesn’t look native

    On the private stuff : considering the fact that Firefox remember the zoom factor of a webpage, man can know if you’ve ever been on a webpage that has been zoomed before

  3. You should acknowledge the fact that Google Chrome came with true, and absolutely bleedin’ excellent, tab dragging in their first release.

    I simply loathe it when people don’t give damn obvious credit where it damn obviously is due.

    1. If you mean credit as in “good work”, I don’t see the point. If you mean “Google invented tab tearing”, it’s not the case. The idea for tab tearing has been floating around for years now, probably since the age of the Mozilla Application Suite.

      Anyway, yes, well done Google. But see, out of the review.

  4. well, opera had tab dragging/detaching etc A LONG TIME ago long before firefox was born and google ever started to think about making a browser. while it almost covers opera strong points, credit is where it is due

  5. Good progress, but they still need to focus on making it start up faster. Ctrl+w used to close the window if there was only one tab – now it leaves the window open with a blank tab, which is annoying.

    1. Agree. It seems as if Firefox needs to load all data files before it can load. Maybe if they could start with a barebones Firefox and not load in history, places etc. Then load the tab that is open and see what it needs from history, places, etc. After the first tab is loaded you can begin to fully start Firefox with all data files and load all tabs.

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